In my second interview with influential, but beneath the radar figures in the U.S. soccer world, I asked D.C. United Executive Vice-President Stephen Zack 11 questions. Stephen has been twice honored as the MLS Marketing Executive of the Year and in 2006 received the prestigious Doug Hamilton MLS Executive of the Year Award.
I first met Stephen in 1997 during my “Tour de MLS” while investigating the dos and don’ts of MLS. From Stephen and D.C. United I mostly learned dos. At the time, Stephen was the best marketing person in MLS. He has always impressed me with his knowledge, humility and marketing instinct. His role with D.C. working with President Kevin Payne is critical and I always viewed Steve Pastorino’s role with the Chicago Fire as comparable to Stephen’s with United as they both began their MLS careers overseeing team marketing and grew their roles over the years. When Pastorino left to become Real Salt Lake’s General Manager and AEG nixed replacing him, it left the Fire shorthanded and portended my later exit from the Fire. I can’t imagine D.C. United achieving the business success they have enjoyed without Stephen Zack.
1. Can you describe your role with D.C. United, how it’s evolved over the years and the dynamic between you and Kevin Payne?
Stephen Zack: My background was actually in advertising, but I stumbled into the soccer world back in 1991 when I joined Soccer USA Partners, the entity in charge of US Soccer Sponsorship sales at the time. It was during this time that I first worked with Kevin Payne. My role with Soccer USA Partners was specifically in event management, as we staged over 40 US National team matches around the US leading up to World Cup 94. When our parent company invested in the initial start up of Major League Soccer, I had the opportunity to move to DC along with Kevin and another Soccer USA Partners employee, Betty D’Anjolell, to open the D.C. United offices and launch the team in late 1995. When we came to DC, I took on the role of Director of Advertising and Promotions in keeping with my past experience in advertising.
From there, the position evolved into Director of Marketing overseeing our sponsorship sales and service departments. After Betty D’Anjolell left the team following the 1998 season, I took on oversight of our ticket sales and operations departments. In my current role as Executive Vice President, I oversee all aspects of the business operations of D.C. United. Throughout this entire time, I have reported directly to Kevin Payne and we have formed a very efficient work relationship. We have the same goals and philosophies regarding the D.C. United brand and work environment, but we also have very different styles which balance out very nicely.
2. Who were the people early in your soccer administrative career who inspired and taught you the most?
SZ: Aside from Kevin and Betty D’Anjolell, from whom I have probably learned the most, I had the opportunity in those early US Soccer years to work closely with Hank Steinbrecher, Sunil Gulati, Dan Flynn and other key figures in the soccer community.
3. Where do you find your best staff members for entry level and management positions?
SZ: Regarding staffing, we believe very strongly in promoting from within whenever possible. Most entry level positions are filled by people who have interned for us and many of our mid - level staff members were once D.C. United interns. We are very proud of our minimal turnover in staff and, because of that fact, management positions do not open up frequently. When positions do open up, we usually look to promote from within. There are times that we hire from outside the company and usually utilize contacts and services to find the appropriate applicants.
4. What are your proudest achievements in your time with D.C. United?
SZ: While I was honored to be the recipient of the Doug Hamilton Executive of the Year award in 2006, I can’t recall what I did that year to deserve such an honor. When I look back on 14 years with D.C. United, I am simply proud of everything we have done to get to where we are now – a team that has won more trophies than any other in the league, has a fantastic fan base, has an enduring brand that is well recognized and well respected in the community. When I drive up to RFK Stadium, which is about to turn 50 years old, and I see our players displayed prominently on the outside of the building, I can’t help but be proud of everything we have accomplished while knowing we still have a long way to go.
5. Did the Nationals move from Montreal create real competition for sponsor dollars, media coverage and ticket sales and if so, how does DCU differentiate its offerings?
SZ: I cannot say that the Nationals move to DC had any major impact on our business from a sales point of view. We had quite a few logistical issues to overcome while we shared RFK Stadium with them and competition for media attention was difficult in their initial year in DC. Our sales, however, did not suffer in any regard. We believe that soccer, and MLS in particular, has greater appeal to a younger demographic, while baseball’s demographic continues to age. We did not need to change our marketing or differentiate our offerings as we already offered great value, great atmosphere and a quality team. While the Nationals had all the hype in their first year, they were the ones that had to adapt once the initial love affair was over.
6. DCU’s brand is as strong as any in American soccer. What have been the keys to developing and maintain it?
SZ: Early on we had determined that we wanted D.C. United to represent traditional, authentic soccer. We strived for that in the determination of our name and the development of our logo. We reinforced this ideal in our advertising with the original tagline, The Tradition Begins. While players have changed and success on the field has varied, the message always remains the same. We are a real soccer team with real traditions.
SZ: Before we had even opened our offices in DC, we were aware of a group on the internet that had been formed in the DC area to support the new team. I don’t recall if Big Soccer existed at that time or exactly what method they were using to communicate but we reached out to the “leader” of this group and asked if we could speak with them. I was able to speak with Matt Mathai who would become the original president of the Screaming Eagles. I recall he sounded nervous when we first spoke as if we were looking to shut down their activities. Quite the opposite. We wanted to work with them to help us promote the team and grow their support. Shortly thereafter came the Barra Brava and then La Norte. In all cases, we work directly with their leadership to help them grow, to provide them with the ability to support the team the way they want while at the same time, helping D.C. United to grow as well.
8. DCU has always done better than the norm with post-season attendance. What have been the keys to getting those crowds?
SZ: In the earlier years, we may have managed to get by on the success of the team on the field, but we realized later on the need to market the playoffs and not just assume people would come. We created the “Blackout” concept to promote our playoff games to set them apart while encouraging our fans to wear black. While the concept likely does not seem very original now as many other teams are using this type of “wear the colors” theme, it was new in MLS when we launched the program in 98 or 99. We also backed them up with appropriate advertising and media buy. It is a mistake to assume that just because you are in the playoffs, people will come. You need to promote the event.
9. Early on, DCU was dependent on Salvadoran and Bolivian players to secure large crowds from those communities. What did you do to try to retain that audience when those players left and how successful was it?
SZ: I don’t think I would agree with the use of the word “dependent”, but it was clear that certain communities found it more appealing to have representation on the team by players from their home countries. We have actually had a Bolivian player on our team for all but one year and have had various players from Central America on and off over the years. We always try to put the best possible team on the field as we believe that, in the end, a successful team on the field is more important than a player’s country of origin. We have had years where we have had players of note from key countries, but the team’s performance fell flat. We did not see increases in attendance during those times simply because of one or two players on the team. We consistently try to promote the quality of soccer that we play in hopes of bringing in fans of the sport not of key players.
10. Can DCU be profitable at RFK? If not, will the team be forced to move if it doesn’t secure a better stadium situation in the next ten years? How would DCU’s marketing efforts change with a suburban stadium? What role, if any, have you played in the team’s efforts to develop a stadium?
SZ: Under current terms it would be difficult to be profitable at RFK Stadium. It might be possible to remain at RFK long term with some key improvements and different terms with the District. While I am not involved in the day to day process of finding a new stadium solution, I can say that we have not given up on finding an acceptable solution in the Greater Washington DC area and I expect that one will be found. If that solution were to end up being in a suburban environment, I do not believe our marketing/message would change. We would likely need to review the media used to get our message out as well as how to maximize sales to the area surrounding the stadium. That is all hypothetical right now as we remain focused on our current situation.
11. Are there lessons for other MLS teams in the business success of Seattle and Toronto or are the market differences such that it’s not replicable? What are the growth areas for MLS teams in the next five years?
SZ: I have no doubt that every team in MLS would like to replicate the success that has been achieved in Toronto and Seattle. While some of their success can be linked with the timing of their entry into MLS and and their specific stadium benefits (size, location, amenities, etc.), it is clear that the marketing behind these teams was beyond compare. They each worked closely with their parent/sister entities (Maple Leaf Sports/Seattle Seahawks) to maximize efficiencies and reach. They each had solid brand development and strong marketing programs behind their respective launches.
Of interest to most other teams in MLS is the success that both these markets have had in selling to the young adult market. It is this area that is seen as a major growth area for MLS. While teams will always have marketing programs aimed at the youth soccer market, long term success requires an increase in sales to the casual and hardcore soccer fan. We need to find a way to convince both the casual fan and the fans of the EPL and La Liga who do not attend MLS games to become our fans. New and improved stadiums and quality play will help that process as will greater knowledge and use of digital/social media marketing tools. MLS must try to capitalize on what is expected to be unparalled coverage and interest in the 2010 World Cup and translate that into greater interest in the sport and MLS in particular.
Peter Wilt writes weekly for Pitch Invasion. Follow him @PeterWilt1 on Twitter.